Theatre review: The Pajama Game, Minerva Theatre, Chichester

 

The Chichester season (reduced in scale this year as the main theatre is renovated and the big shows are housed in a tent) kicks off in the Minerva Studio now with Richard Eyre's irrepressibly zestful revival of The Pajama Game, the 1954 Broadway hit (with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) that became a Doris Day film three years later.

Jean-Luc Godard claimed that the piece was “the first Left-wing operetta”. Well, not quite. As this cannily judged, high-spirited production reminds us, the show owes rather more to Guys and Dolls than it does to Brecht or to Marc Blitzstein's radical pro-union musical of the Depression era, The Cradle Will Rock. 

At the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory in Iowa, a strike is imminent as the workers agitate for a seven-and-half cents per hour pay rise. But it's a case of love across the picket line when Sid Sorokin, the ambitious new Superintendent (Hadley Fraser in attractively strong, ardent/abrasive voice) falls for Joanna Riding's bewitchingly bolshie-yet-sensitive Babe Williams, head of the Union's Grievance Committee. 

In its cheerfully tongue-in-cheek and unapologetic way, the show is considerably more interested in how the central couple negotiate their way round the romantic obstacles than it is in the industrial dispute. For all his kneejerk, snarling abuse of Communists, Colin Stinton's Boss is almost endearingly inept; the ostensibly oppressed workers seem more exuberant than I can ever remember being (Stephen Mear's dynamic choreography makes their whooping “Once-A-Year-Day” union picnic an elating rush of glee) and some of best numbers relate to a jealousy sub-plot. Claire Machin tips the wink delectably as Mabel, the well-groomed, comfortably proportioned secretary, who in the great Frank Loesser-like duet “I'll Never Be Jealous Again, plays mischievous tricks with the Green Eyed Monster that's assailing Peter Polycarpou's twitchily driven Time and Motion man.

Is The Pajama Game in the top ten great American musicals, as Eyre contends? To my mind, the show bears the same relation to that status as a bag of plums does to a great fruit cake. But then again, what a succession of highlights it offers. A tinselly camp “Hernando's Hideaway”, a drolly sizzling “Steam Heat”, Hadley Fraser singing to his own dictaphone-recorded voice in the lovely “Hey There (You With The Stars in Your Eyes” are among the pleasures of a production that feels a bit hyperactive for the intimate space at the moment and should be even more pleasurable when it has had time to calm down a bit. 

To June 8; 01243 781312

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